James’ Essay: Telling a new story
Jennifer James invites us to question the stories we tell and identify whether they represent our future or our past

TELLING A NEW STORY

Stories are a way for our hearts and minds to hold onto many bits of data about who we are and who we want to be. “The Ugly Duckling” reminds children that you can never tell what you’ll be like when you grow up so hang in there. Stories of war usually offer examples of courage under fire to inspire us. Medals and awards tell stories of achievement. The Bible offers stories of faith.

The faster our world changes, the more bits of data that are thrown at us, the more we need stories to hold on to, to organize the chaos. The trouble is that some of the stories that we use to understand reality are not just obsolete but destructive.

Tobacco is an example of how beliefs change. When I was a teenager smoking was considered sexy and cool, that was the story of the Marlboro man. I was never able to inhale without coughing so I never really smoked. But, as a poor kid I bought a cardboard package of Benson and Hedges because I thought that was what rich people had in their pockets.

Now cigarette smoking is neither sexy nor cool, it is considered stupid. It is banned in New York City, even in bars. The story has changed. Last month a man from Virginia (?) went to Washington D.C. and sat in the Reflecting Pond on his tractor because he could no longer make a living as a tobacco farmer.

Timber workers in Washington State, men very proud of the toughness it takes to be loggers, now encourage their children to be “ techies.” The nerds, they believe, not the hunters, will inherit the earth. Which story fits the new economy?

Understanding the stories we create about “the way things ought to be” helps us understand why we resist even positive change. The stories in our gut are powerful sets of myths, accurate or inaccurate history, and values rolled into a version of reality. The Palestinians and the Israelis do not agree on reality. The Buddhists and Catholics do not agree on heaven.

We have created myths about Japanese Americans, African Americans and Arab Americans over the years to simplify and ease our fears. We just finished making up stories about the French. Anti-Americanism is at an all time high worldwide. What stories are they believing about us? A compelling story can justify internment, lynching or a boycott.

It becomes very hard to adapt, to tell the new stories, the ones you need to fit into the real world, if you cannot take apart the old stories. Senator Trent Lott found that out, his ignorance of the new race story gave his enemies cover to remove him.

New stories have three elements: a set of ideas that fit the current reality, a set of values that provide a foundation for the ideas and a compelling storyteller. Nelson Mandela told a powerful story of reconciliation in South Africa based on justice and his extraordinary stature. He was believable, he could be trusted.

Just plain women and men tell new stories every day about who can care for children and who can be a doctor or a governor. We used to think men would drop small babies if we let them pick one up. We used to believe that women could not be leaders or run businesses.

New ideas about diversity should be easy, they are built into who we are as Americans. We keep recognizing new groups as legitimate human beings even though we still fight about it. In the last 100 years we have changed our story on women, children, Native Americans, Asian Americans, seniors, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, homosexuals and now all sorts of non-human animals. “Babe” is a story about animal rights. The values are obvious, freedom, fairness, democracy, compassion, justice.

What are the current stories in your community. Are they stories that represent the future or the past? What are the underlying values the stories represent and who are the storytellers? Are they believable?

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